Look at the actor Paul Mescal from a distance, and he’s like any fella walking up the road after hurling practice. His gait, manner, girth – all speak to a young man who’s into his sport, less so into himself. We are familiar with such people. They’re a normal part of life.
Closer up, should you get a zoomed-in glimpse of Mescal’s face, you might moderate your initial judgment. Here, surely, is one the the town’s catches; a sweetheart of the gabbling girls on Main Street, and a few of its lusty-eyed boys. The metallic blue of Mescal’s irises acquires a topaz glint in the sun; the inverted arc of his eyelashes have implausible delicacy; his tight-pored skin is a sort of low-grade, casual miracle.
These attributes place Paul Mescal apart. But let us not lose our minds. Every university class has a strikingly handsome young man in its midst; every medium-sized town a couple more.
Mescal was cast in the lead role of Connell Waldron in ‘Normal People’, a 12 episode TV drama currently streaming worldwide to cultural acclaim, for specific reason. Not just because he looked like a regular Sligo bloke from this angle, a matinée hunk from the other. And not just because he is a supremely talented actor.
There is such art in Lenny Abrahamson’s direction of Sally Rooney’s work, that my theory of the case for Normal People is that casting went one step further.
This last step was the transcendent coup de grace – because it would fully find the magic in its working-class hero. And it is hiding in plain sight.
The secret to Mescal’s career-making star turn resides between his cheekbones. I am speaking here of bone and cartilage. Because the character of Connell cannot eloquently speak his truth, much is asked of his face.
Paul Mescal, then, was nasal casting. All of Connell’s complexity – channeled in an actor’s nose.
Human beings are endowed with one of the largest externally constructed noses of all primates. Most in our particular taxonomy have decidedly flat noses – but ours protrude.
Several Darwinian benefits accrue to such developments over time.
One hypothesis of Evolutionary Psychology is that the nasal cavity was pushed out of the skull, becoming a sort of inelegant respiring sidecar, in order to leave space in the skull for more brains. Our large nose, by this account, is an outcome of natural selection for grey matter – the price we pay for cognitive heft.
A second theory of Evolutionary Psychology is founded in dimorphism – the interplay between man and woman. This is my preferred hypothesis not just because it is more fascinating, but also because it is well substantiated. A frequently cited psychological study of human eye movement reports that, when given the task of determining the gender of a human face, our eyes move first to the region of the lower nose.
The theory holds that the nose – in particular the male nose – is a tool of sexual selection for females. Our female ancestors knew that the male honker was both prominent and vulnerable to damage. As pre-civilisation men were prone to fisticuffs in their dealings with other men, the ability of a man to resolve disputes without injury to his own face was prized by women. The undamaged nose was a mating heuristic – a proxy of male virility.[Female birds apply the same logic in their selection of males for mating, preferring those whose delicate and beautifully refined plumage remains pristine, despite the ravages of the avian daily grind.]
And so, my case so far is this: the nose is not just an olfactory workhorse of man, but also a metaphor.
Literature has embraced the idea for some time.
Here, I choose to ignore some writers’ crude and ill-judged nasal references. Such as… the nose being a red lantern to illuminate a man’s drinking problem (disappointing, Master Shakespeare); or… the creation of a thoroughly wooden character whose nose elongates as he tells lies (highly unfortunate, Senore Collodi – especially given yours was a tale for children).
Thankfully, the proboscis is well served by more gentlemanly wordsmiths, in which a preponderance of male noses take centre-stage.
Edward Lear is remembered not just for owls and pussycats, but also the pretty rhyming yarn ‘The Dong With The Luminous Nose’. The tragic ‘Dong’ has been rejected by his ‘Jumbly Girl’, cast to the night in his sorrows. What happens next is fully unexpected.
‘He gathered the bark of the Twangum Tree
On the flowery plain that grows.
And he wove him a wondrous Nose,
A Nose as strange as a Nose could be!
Of vast proportions and painted red,
And tied with cords to the back of his head.’
For the Dong, his freshly woven nose becomes a metaphor of a giant, all-consuming love that tragically goes unnoticed by his ‘Jumbly Girl’.
She is clearly difficult to please.
So much for charming British rhyme. But I award literature’s Schnozzle Laurel to France.
Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac demonstrates that one man’s giant nose can prevail in the end. You will remember this lovelorn Gallic hero: the valiant poet of beautiful words, convinced he cannot be loved by Roxane because of his louche, enormous snout. It’s a convoluted plot, but in the end, we discover that Cyrano has misjudged the choices of his beloved. Roxane has already fallen for Cyrano’s eloquence delivered by a central casting hunk-bore (the hapless Christian). When she learns that these exquisite words of love have in fact been composed in Cyrano’s mind, she declares her love for the poet – sniffer and all.
But the nose is not always stuck in books.
Civilisations have courted nasal charms too. The ancient Athenians sought to create a perfect man through the perfect nose – straight as a dye in profile, possessed of narrow nostrils. The Roman, or aquiline, nose stood in opposition to Greek perfection. Its large and hawkish hook was seen as a signal of nobility.
All in all, my case is this case: the nose is freighted with meaning. It tells a strand of any tale.
Which brings me to Normal People, and the search for veracity not just in a character’s words, but in his being. This is a TV show marked by its interest in fine detail: lingering on a kettle as it boils, on a book after it has been discarded, on the tense grip of a wine glass stem.
It is a show that schools us in a life-long lesson: everything has meaning.
The character of Connell Waldron is a complex weave. He is working-class lad entering a middle-class world; he is a GAA hero in Sligo who is quasi-invisible on Trinity campus; he is possessed of searing intelligence, yet is inarticulate in expressing his deepest desires; he seeks the approval of his peers, to the disavowal of his higher self; he is the shame and pride of his loving, shepherding mother – played with keen sensitivity by Sarah Greene.
Unlike his love interest, Marianne, inhabited (not merely ‘played’) by Daisy Edgar Jones, Connell’s progress towards maturity is less a sequential cygnet-to-swan arc, and more the act of faltered layering: unknotting, revealing, failing, weaving.
[I should note here that this is Connell as I read him 8 episodes in; I may not have fully got the measure of who he is. But that’s normal. People evolve. Fictional people too.]
Normal People makes interesting viewing. It has the poetry of ‘Call Me By Your Name’, the back-and-forth plot lines of a Venezuelan soap opera, and the studied, angular beauty of a spider, methodically spinning its web.
Just as Marianne is the source of much of the story’s jeopardy, Connell is its anchor and through-line. Between his failure to say what he means and act how he feels, a moral strength and fortitude must also, simultaneously, reside. Connell’s journey is to become fully a man; and in doing so, he is a stand-in for all men.
Abrahamson’s camera loves Paul Mescal, finding eloquent storytelling in his physical being. Connell must transcend the usual tropes of the romantic hero. We must be subliminally aware of his aura of inner strength.
And we become so in the god-like profile of the actor’s nose.
Mescal has a pronounced, strong, high nose – a union of Roman and Greek aesthetic.
Playing Connell, his essence is transformed in side profile. The camera seeks out that profile, again and again – often in yearning, deliberative silence.
And the spider – slowly, methodically, unspools in front of us. All of the brittle vulnerability of his humanity and masculinity are found there.
Strong. Noble. Damaged.
Normal People is an everyman story of young love, extraordinarily told. To seek out the precision of its majesty, look no further than the profile of its hero’s nose.
Note: the pen sketch of Paul Mescal is by my niece, Clara McIntyre